“Katrina is not the Worst Case Scenario”
Amy Zegart — danieldrezner.com’s resident expert on homeland securit and intelligence reformy — e-mailed me these thoughts on Katrina’s lessons for defending against terrorist attacks: The devastation from Hurricane Katrina is not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario is a man made disaster with no warning: a catastrophic terrorist attack with a nuclear ...
Amy Zegart -- danieldrezner.com's resident expert on homeland securit and intelligence reformy -- e-mailed me these thoughts on Katrina's lessons for defending against terrorist attacks:
Amy Zegart — danieldrezner.com’s resident expert on homeland securit and intelligence reformy — e-mailed me these thoughts on Katrina’s lessons for defending against terrorist attacks:
The devastation from Hurricane Katrina is not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario is a man made disaster with no warning: a catastrophic terrorist attack with a nuclear or biological agent. Make no mistake. The question is not whether such an attack will occur, but when. What can we do? Start by facing reality. It is not too soon to begin assessing what went wrong with emergency response in New Orleans and what makes terrorism different from natural disasters. Some initial thoughts: 1. The keystone cops response in New Orleans stems, in part, from a flawed model of how to train for disaster. Training drills almost never prepare officials for the worst. New Orleans conducted disaster exercises in 2000 and 2004 for hurricanes, but these drills did not include the possibility of a levee failure. In Los Angeles, a major port security exercise, Determined Promise 2004, tested a new mobile radio patch unit that enables different emergency response agencies to talk to each other. Surprise surprise: the system worked well. Of course it did. When everyone knows disaster will begin at noon on Monday, they miraculously remember to bring the right radios and brush up on instructions about how to use them properly. Even worse, not only do many exercises avoid facing truly disastrous scenarios, they define success by how smoothly everything goes. This gives a false sense of comfort, or to use a technical term, it’s STUPID. Instead, we need to drill into officials that the right measure of success is how much they learn. If things do not go wrong in a drill, then the exercise was not useful. 2. At every level of government, elected officials work from a fictional premise: that they can, and should, protect everyone from every possible disastrous event. But the truth is hurricanes will hit. Terrorists will strike. Prevention will be far lower than 100%. If you start by acknowledging, rather than avoiding, this reality, you get a different approach: concentrate funding, planning, and efforts on potential events that would bring catastrophic consequences, rather than spreading resources too thin. Hurricane hits Florida, bad. Hurricane hits New Orleans rendering the entire city uninhabitable, catastrophe. Suicide bombs at shopping malls, bad. Nuclear bomb blasting a major U.S. city into oblivion, unacceptable. The goal should be to ensure that government is best prepared to prevent and respond to the worst possible outcomes rather than splitting time and money between an endless array of possibilities. Politicians hate thinking like this because it’s scary and it’s politically unattractive: they actually have to make choices about what ranks high on the priority list and what does not. And that is guaranteed to piss off more people than it pleases. In the three years after 9/11 Congress distributed roughly $13 billion in homeland security funding to the states using a formula that redefines crazy: 40% of the funds went to every state, regardless of population or terrorist targets. Rural areas with no major targets got a disproportionate share of the funds, while the most likely terrorist targets, like Los Angeles, got the shaft. Note to self: move back to Kentucky soon.
Zegart also has a sobering reminder — it is easier to cope with natural disasters than terrorist attacks:
Natural disasters are obvious when they occur. Many types of terrorist attacks (biological attacks, radiological contamination) are not. If you think the slow pace of response to Katrina is bad, imagine the outbreak of an infectious disease, where fast diagnosis is all that stands between a few deaths and national tragedy. Natural disasters often come with warning. Terrorist attacks do not. This difference is huge. It is easy to forget, amidst the desperate struggle for survival by New Orleans residents, that many thousands more did successfully evacuate before the hurricane hit. In a massive terrorist attack, the likely scenario would be mass panic.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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